The Post and Courier

Review: ‘Frantumaglia’ explains Elena Ferrante’s anonymity

FRANTUMAGLIA: A Writer’s Journey. By Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions. 384 pages. $24.

What is a frantumaglia? Here’s how Italian superstar novelist Elena Ferrante (the Neapolitan Quartet) explains the title of her hodgepodge collection, the revised and expanded version of a book she published in 2003: “My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. … It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable; it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in the muddy water of the brain.”

Among her own fragments, Ferrante includes open-ended, exploratory writing about what it means to be an artist and a woman in the present moment. Whether she’s writing a letter that she’ll never send or answering questions for a “Paris Review” interview, Ferrante is unsentimental and thrillingly blunt. There is no one like her.

All of the collected interviews address a decision Ferrante made 25 years ago: to absent herself from the public stage. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym. The opening letter, written to her editors before she published her first book, sets the terms of her public invisibility: “I’ve already done enough for this long story. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.”

Ferrante’s refusal to be seen is interesting for the questions it raises about the covenant between writer and reader. Beyond their words on the page, what do writers owe us of themselves? Ferrante’s life is a lesson in balance, between offering and withholding. Lovers of her books — and I am one of them — will testify that she’s given us plenty. Why insist on more? Biography, as she says, “is just a micro-story on the side.” Even Tolstoy “is an insignificant shadow if he takes a stroll with Anna Karenina.”

Ferrante’s reasons for sticking with her decision change over the years. When she was a new writer, Ferrente was timid and anxious about the story she was telling, particularly its connection to her own life and the lives of her friends and acquaintances. Later, she became hostile to every form of publicity. The limelight, she says, “conceals rather than reveals.” We are, Ferrante believes, “in a permanent spectacle which…goes hand in hand with superficiality.”

She trusts her books and sends them into the world without protection. They live or die on their own strength, without benefit of their author’s picture. In some interviews, she brushes off questions about living a lie by reminding her interrogators that literature is a lie, too, “a self-contained world made up of words.” This is her world.

Throughout the collection, Ferrante credits invisibility with keeping her free. These days, she remains intangible because she values the creative space opened up by her absence. A 2014 interview, published in “Frantumaglia,” carries the headline “If You Discover Who I Am I’ll Give It All Up.” Intangibility for Ferrrante was rarely a cloak. It was always a declaration. She became overtly what we all are in some existential sense—unknown and unknowable. No one who reads “Frantumaglia” can doubt how important disembodiment is to the author.

How sad then to report, as many are already aware, that Ferrante was unmasked by journalist Carlo Gatti, in an article that appeared simultaneously in a number of publications, among them the “New York Review of Books.” According to Gatti, she is Anita Raja, a successful translator of German literature who is married to novelist Domenico Starnone, long considered a candidate himself as writer of the Ferrante books.

In the pages of “Frantumaglia,” Ferrante declares that she’d lie to protect her cover, and if (the big if) Gatti is correct, she has. While Elena Ferrante’s mother was a Neapolitan seamstress, Anita Raja’s mother was a Polish Jew who taught school and who married an Italian magistrate. Raja was born in Naples, but only lived there for the first three years of her life. Since then, her home has been in Rome.

There’s something deflating about Gatti’s methods — tracking down the money until it leads to a couple of Roman apartments and windfalls of cash. A similar conjunction between two worlds, the ordinary and the artistic, occurs at the ending of “My Brilliant Friend,” the first novel of the Neapolitan Quartet. In a scene at her wedding, Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter, looks down to find the shoes that she lovingly designed and stitched are scuffing along the floor. Lila is both horrified and amused that the rich world of the imagination could make contact with ordinary earth: “The mind’s dreams have ended up under the feet.”

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.

 By Nancy Schiefer, Special to Postmedia Network

Although she has written seven novels in Italian and is, in translation, all the rage among the English language reading public, Elena Ferrante remains mysterious.

The name Ferrante is a pseudonym and the wildly popular writer has tried to stay undercover and eschew the expected round of interviews and book signing tours.

That mystery was somewhat lifted in October, when Italian journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to unmask Ferrante as Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome.

Before that revelation, however, Ferrante agreed to the publication of Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, a glance-back at nearly 25 years of authorial silence.

The volume, which appeared in Italian 10 years ago and now in English translation, is a scattered collection of letters, interviews, essays and miscellaneous observation which may, hopefully, shed more light on Ferrante and on her impressive array of work.

The Italian writer, for those not familiar with her reputation, is the author of not only three best-selling novels, The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter, but of the internationally lauded Neapolitan Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.

Her translator, Ann Goldstein, who has never met Ferrante, has also been widely praised.

Ferrante herself defines her recent book’s title, Frantumaglia, as a “tangle” as a term which may best describe the interconnectedness of the world, of the role still played among the living of those who have died, “all those others who were once in the world and who have acted or who now act through us. In the most absolute tranquility or in the midst of tumultuous events, in safety or danger, in innocence or corruption, we are a crowd of others. And this crowd is certainly a blessing for literature.”

Ferrante’s book is, in part, a catch-up, a narrative wherein the author, while remaining anonymous, consents to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at how she thinks and how she works.

Writing, she reminds us, is both a joy and a drudgery, a pleasure and a constant struggle, a minefield through which she is now willing to guide her legions of readers.

Or, at least, to fill them in on how the vagaries of the writing life have affected her personally.

Ferrante is interesting on writing as a sidebar to feminism.

As she sifts though the stages of a prolific writing career, Ferrante has much to say to an eager audience.

She covers, with aplomb, questions regarding “authenticity” in literature and cites, as examples, such favoured authors as Jane Austen, Virginia Wool and Alice Munro who have, she suggests, an outstanding degree of literary power.

“But its hard to acknowledge. For example, women writers are still compared only with one another. You can be better than other well-known women writers but not better than well-known male writers. Just as its extremely rare for great male writers to say they’ve taken as models great women writers.”

In another interview, Ferrante returns to this theme.

Great literature is generally thought to be literature penned by men, she points out.

“Apart from a few fine souls, men don’t read books by women, as if such reading would weaken their virile power. Educated, broad-minded men treat female thought with polite irony, as a by-product, good only as a pastime for women.”

Glimpses into Ferrante’s cast of mind include memories of childhood, of places she has lived, her thoughts on female friendship and how it has affected the writing of the Neapolitan Quartet, the adaptation of novels into film, the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in her own life and on her perceived role as storyteller rather than as general writer.

The book offers an unusual mosaic of reminiscence and current musing and will be a welcome surprise to fans of Ferrante’s astonishing novels.

Nancy Schiefer is a London freelance writer.

San Francisco Chronicle

The karaoke book club: where women talk literature, then sing

We began because we needed to talk about the fever. For some, it begins with “The Days of Abandonment”; for others, with “My Brilliant Friend.” But one thing is sure: Ferrante fever doesn’t break.

Readers around the world are riveted by Elena Ferrante’s portrayals of friendship, love and loss, and the social, cultural, political frameworks that have everything to do with desire versus possibility. Her books are gloriously and unabashedly about girls and women. Their covers, the subject of several articles, dare you to call the work women’s fiction. The author herself is famously pseudonymous, asking readers to focus only on the work.

And we do. Last year, Aimee Phan and I found ourselves texting about Ferrante. We agreed that reading her novels was an intense, immersive experience, and one that we wanted to talk about. We should have a book club, Aimee said, and before we knew it we did: a group of women, writers, living in the Bay Area and, as it happens, Asian American. Our first goal: the Neapolitan quartet.

It turned out that we also shared an enthusiasm for karaoke and the particular joy of singing ’80s and ’90s songs at top volume in a private room. And so our karaoke book club was created. We gather for dinner to discuss Ferrante, writing and literature, with a dash of gossip, and then we sing. If this sounds strange, I can only say: Try it. The pairing makes the gathering not just a conversation but an event.

It was already election season when we started our club, so it’s no wonder that many of our conversations were underpinned by the political climates in the Neapolitan novels and in our lives. How women were treated and viewed, and so often disrespected and dismissed. How often women faced punishment for their ambitions. How the governmental and social structures in Naples, circa 1960s and beyond, kept systems of sexism in place, and what it meant to challenge these.

The novels revolve around two women — Elena, the narrator, and her closest friend and sometime frenemy and sometime soul mate Lila — who navigate girlhood and womanhood under the watchful gaze of so many boys and men. Both Elena and Lila yearn to write, create, learn and become. It wasn’t just that all of us in our book club could understand that; it’s that on some level, big or small, we had felt and experienced the same.

Some book clubs are a reason to get together. Some have authors visit or Skype in. Ours feels like community and creativity, each holding up the other. Like when we talk about how Ferrante writes about writing and the feelings of self-doubt that come with it.

Or when we talk about Nino, the bad-boy figure of the Neapolitan novels (everyone knows or has dated a Nino). It happens, too, when we’re at karaoke, yelling out songs from the girlhoods that none of us, ever, really leave behind.

"Frantumaglia" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions


Recently a few of us got together to discuss “Frantumaglia” (Europa Editions; $24), a recent collection of Ferrante’s interviews, letters and excerpts of some previously unpublished material. Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which began at a restaurant and carried over into email. The participants are Kirstin Chen, author of “Soy Sauce for Beginners”; Vanessa Hua, author of “Deceit and Other Possibilities” (and a columnist for The Chronicle); Beth Nguyen, author of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” “Short Girls” and “Pioneer Girl”; and Aimee Phan, author of “The Reeducation of Cherry Truong” and “We Should Never Meet.” Also in the club are Reese Okyong Kwon (“Heroics”), Frances Hwang (“Transparency”) and Rachel Khong (“Goodbye, Vitamin”).

Aimee: I feel like I’m reading these books at the perfect moment in my life: I am in my late 30s, I have two children whose lives consume me (both positively and negatively), and I’m still trying to be a productive writer. Many of her protagonists are also at that moment in their lives: When they are overloaded with responsibilities, both mundane and profound, and they also have a strong sense of wanting to maintain their own individual identities. And at the same time, Ferrante moves beyond this particular reliability — it seems like she can go anywhere in her prose without any need for a transition. She can talk about politics, history, philosophy, sexuality, loneliness, and I willingly go with her, without ever questioning it. I don’t know any writer who can do that for me.

Vanessa: I was gripped by her portrayal of the complicated relationship between women, and what women face — and continue to face — when they attempt to move past traditional gender roles. As the daughter of immigrants, I was interested in the outsider narrative, Elena and Lila both striving to find their place in the world, but struggling to fit in for reasons of language, for reasons of assimilation and class. As a writer, I’m interested in how she approaches her craft, creating characters and circumstances that propel us through a lifetime’s worth of friendship.

Beth: “Frantumaglia” is a bit jarring, because it takes us out of the world Ferrante has created and gives us glimpses into the author’s world, and her process. Before this, I never wondered about Elena Ferrante’s life. I never really thought about it, because it was like she didn’t really exist as a writer you could access. But when I read this, I was like, now I know she writes on the second floor. She writes in a small space and there’s a balcony. She doesn’t like heights. She has two daughters. And then I started thinking about hey, what does she talk about with her friends in real life? Do they know who she is as a writer? Can they talk about their writing, or is it totally off limits? How does she negotiate her everyday life?

Vanessa: Yeah, her cover story is that she’s a translator.

Beth: But to have a cover story with your own friends — like a veil of secrecy?

Kirstin: She didn’t seem to have a clear answer for that. “Frantumaglia” isn’t really Ferrante’s, in a way. It’s a collection of her work, but it doesn’t seem guided by her. I mean, there’s no narrative arc.

"My Brilliant Friend" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“My Brilliant Friend”

Vanessa: I thought about the mysterious founder of bitcoin. People don’t really know, but they want to know because it’s as if knowing the origin must mean or reveal something. I never cared or wondered about which theory was correct about who Ferrante actually is. It didn’t matter to me at all. I mean when we read books as kids, did we think, you know, I want to know everything about Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott?

Beth: This is why reading as a child is magical, because it’s so much about just the book.

Aimee: There’s something nice about speculating, when you’re reading Ferrante’s novels, how much is her? Without having an answer and without getting an answer. It makes it one’s own experience.

Kirstin: I was so interested in Ferrante’s deep love for Lila. That she was her favorite, unequivocally.

Vanessa: Yet she doesn’t tell the novels from Lila’s point of view.

Kirstin: Because Lila is too magnetic.

Aimee: There are lines when I thought I hated Lila and then — oh! Absolutely the opposite. At the same time, Elena is complicated, too. She’s the good-girl narrator and then she’s not. Which makes her, in a way, more deceptive than Lila. Lila’s life has so many highs and lows, because she’s living on her own terms and she refuses to capitulate.

Beth: I loved the frantumaglia idea, the way her mother described it. The jumble of fragments in your mind that can weigh you down. It made a lot of sense.

"The Story of a New Name" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“The Story of a New Name”

Vanessa: The question of influence always comes up with writers. What are your influences; what is your origin story. But frantumaglia is interesting because there’s that note she adds about being disturbed by it, and she’s so disturbed that she has to write about it to get it out of her body. So the frantumaglia idea is a darker take on influence, which is fascinating.

Beth: Still, Ferrante does say several times that writing puts her in a good mood. Though publishing does not.

Vanessa: Ferrante is the kind of author who, once you read their work, you want to read all of it. I feel like that’s really rare.

Beth: She writes a lot about how her absence gives her this creative freedom that she could never have otherwise. Do you think that would be true for any of us, ever, if we decided we would leave social media and all that, and we would just write?

Kirstin: I’m not sure that’s possible for us anymore!

Aimee: Yeah, you’d have to be committed to it from the very beginning, as Ferrante was, in order for it to work. And then I wonder what it costs to keep that going.

Vanessa: I thought about these emerging nonfiction writers whose first publications are incredibly personal and revealing memoir pieces. They’re so confessional, like “I slept with my dad!” And they don’t realize that they can never get away from that.

Beth: Did you notice that whenever people asked about her literary influences, she would always cite Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf — and I don’t think she ever mentioned a single woman of color.

"Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”

Vanessa: Yeah, as usual, writers of color are pretty much never mentioned as influences — except by other writers of color.

Beth: So what do we think about that? What do we think about race and Ferrante? I mean, do we read her the way we read Jane Austen — you know, like it’s a period piece? I think that’s how I read them, and so I have a different level of expectation.

Vanessa: In the books, the characters are outsiders, trying to move from one social and educational class to another, and that’s totally relatable. The struggles are similar.

Kirstin: It’s funny; hers is a world in which it doesn’t occur to me to think about race. It’s so much about regional difference.

Vanessa: I thought it was interesting how Ferrante insisted that the translators not try to render dialect as sounding like dialect. Instead there are markers like, this character says that in dialect and this one said that in Italian. It’s a kind of equalizing move.

Aimee: I think we’ve been pretty critical about American writers when they don’t address race, when their stories are incredibly white. But we don’t put that same standard on Ferrante.

Vanessa: Minority readers can see a mirror in nonminority characters, in white characters, but people don’t always assume that the reverse can happen.

Beth: I think part of the enjoyment of reading period pieces, honestly, is that as a person of color I can be like, yeah, I don’t have to go through the whole racial negotiation.

Aimee: I do identify with Lila feeling so trapped in every decision she made. She’s super smart and she’s thinking so much about self-preservation. And no matter what she does — she’s stuck. What choices are really available to her?

"The Story of the Lost Child" Photo: Europa Editions

Photo: Europa Editions

“The Story of the Lost Child”

Kirstin: I see a lot of writers trying to get away from the inevitable “what about your book is autobiographical” by writing historical fiction.

Beth: Do you think all writers tend to write the same stories or subjects over and over, like Ferrante?

Kirstin: I think we write about what we’re obsessed with, and sometimes that obsession just stays. Ferrante even says she starts with the same voice each time, which seems amazing to me.

Aimee: I think the role of the translator is incredible. They know both worlds — they know everything.

Beth: The translation is another layer of remove, which is totally interesting. There’s the author, there’s “Elena Ferrante,” there’s the translator, and then there’s us.

Later, over email, we reflected on the origins of our book club and what it means to have karaoke be part of it:

Aimee: Usually when I read a really good book, I can gush about it to my partner, whether or not he has read it yet. But with the Neopolitan novels, I felt a need to discuss them not only with other women, because of the incredible way Ferrante handles female perspectives and confronts the overwhelming power of misogyny in this world, but because of what the books said about being a female writer and thinker, and making choices that are not complementary to wifehood or motherhood. Her characters felt so radical and brave, and yet incredibly nearsighted and selfish at times, which is how we all have felt. I liked how passionate these women were, and how Ferrante showed those consequences. As for karaoke — I love karaoke and I love reading. They are both outlets and inspirations, so they make total sense!

Kirstin: I appreciate Ferrante’s writing, first and foremost, I think, for the rawness and the rage. Everything I read in my creative writing classes throughout college and grad school was understated and elegant and wry. That’s what I understood good writing to be and that’s what I aspired to write. When I sink into one of the Neapolitan novels, it really feels like I’m drowning in Ferrante’s words (In a good way! Like drowning in chocolate or something). I’m very struck by Elena’s isolation in the Neapolitan novels, by how much she has to figure out on her own because she simply has no one to turn to. I’m so grateful for our book club. All of this — writing, publishing, academia — would be such a huge puzzle — and so much less fun! — if I didn’t have all of you. And there’s something about the campiness of karaoke that appeals. We all write literary fiction/nonfiction, and karaoke is kind of the opposite of that, almost subversively so.

Beth: The depth of Elena and Lila’s friendship, with all of its complications, and the secrets and secret ambitions both women keep — for me this is real talk, real life. Very often, the Neapolitan Quartet is realism doing some of the best work it can do, showing us that we are not alone. I love that Ferrante is a forthright feminist and that these books are so unapologetically about the lives of girls and women. I use that word “unapologetically” because I feel like, for too long and still, people feel the need to justify that, as if the experiences of girls and women aren’t universal or literary enough. Ferrante knows she doesn’t have to justify that, and I think something about our book club is similar. We don’t have to explain our Ferrante fever; we revel in the feeling of it. The karaoke, too. We go with the feeling (of the writing, of the song) and trust that it will take us somewhere we need to go.

Vanessa: When I first tried reading “My Brilliant Friend,” I couldn’t get much past the section on their girlhood. So many neighbors, so much infighting and squabbling. Yet I knew how passionately people devoured the series, and when Aimee suggested the book club, I was eager to try again. The second time around, the book resonated and I quickly finished reading it, and then the entire quartet. What seems like the minutiae of childhood, I grew to understand, is foundational to understanding the dynamic between the two women, and social and economic forces they are up against their entire lives. Over dinner and drinks, we talk about how the book moved us and made us think about the world as women, as writers. It’s a fun way to engage our intellect. By contrast, karaoke is pure emotion — the highs so high, the lows so low. We’re going back, way back, to the songs we sang along to at prom or played while cruising around with our friends. Likewise, Ferrante’s Lila gives us access to her innermost thoughts and feelings in her childhood and adolescence — all her life, she is raw and honest and restless, like any great karaoke ballad.


World Literature Today

Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey by Elena Ferrante

In 1992 Edizioni e/o published a first novel, L’amore molesto, by an Italian writer who called herself “Elena Ferrante.” Its provocative cover featured a stylish female figure in a red suit—without her head. Eleven years later, the elegant “headless woman” surfaced again on the cover of a collection of Ferrante’s letters called La frantumaglia (2003). Ferrante’s book covers all feature figures with their faces hidden, just as the novelist has hidden her identity for twenty-four years. Explaining her reasons for anonymity to a relentlessly hungry Italian press in 2003, she wrote, “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but for the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word.”

Reading this collection of Ferrante’s interviews over twenty years (1995–2015), one is struck by her naïveté. Her seven translated novels found a rapt market in the US (1.6 million copies sold of the Neapolitan tetralogy alone), but she has never ceased to be a target for “unmasking.” Whether the secret scribbler is Edizione e/o’s German translator Anita Raja, her husband, Domenico Starnone, or Topo Gigio, her comments on her female narrators and her writing process is revelatory. She describes Neapolitan mothers she has known, for example, as “silent victims, desperately in love with males and male children, ready to defend and serve them even though the men crush and torture them. . . . To be female children of these mothers wasn’t and isn’t easy.” Those children are the ones she writes about, and their friendships are fragile, “without rules.” The “brilliant friends” Lila and Lenù fight and make up—for sixty years—but they are devoted to each other in a way neither is with her men.

Ferrante has much to say here about her birth city, Naples; her childhood; the origin of her plots; and her need as a fiction writer to be “sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.” I was disappointed at inconsistent or odd translations, such as “difference feminism” for il pensiero della differenza, not to mention rendering frantumaglia (her mother’s word for depression) as “a jumble of fragments.” On the whole, however, Ann Goldstein’s translation does justice to the 2003 original, a volume that serves as a “companion” to Ferrante’s fiction.

Lisa Mullenneaux
University of Maryland University College

Tony’s Reading List


Most people would be aware that the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante isn’t one to enjoy the limelight, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to find out more about the mysterious Italian writer (with some going to extreme lengths in an attempt to discover her true identity…).  However, if you’re really interested in the woman behind the Neapolitan Novels, rather than going through the bank accounts and real estate records of prominent Italians, you’d be better advised to have a read of her latest book, a collection of letters and interviews spanning two decades.  It’s an informative and enjoyable read – and probably a lot less illegal too…

Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) was originally released a while back in Italy, a book featuring letters to and from Ferrante over the first few years of her writing career.  It provided the only glimpse of the writer the reader was likely to get and focused both on her desire for privacy and her thoughts on her first two novels (Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment).  However, over the years the work has grown along with Ferrante’s success, and the English translation is a full copy of the updated version, adding interviews and conversations gathered since the completion of the Neapolitan Novels.

In many ways, the book provides an invaluable glimpse of the person behind the literature.  The countless interviews, with Ferrante’s extended responses to questions on her work, added to the many letters to her publishers and fragments of writing that was never published, persuade us that we’re receiving a privileged look behind the scenes.  Whether that’s true or not is debatable, though.  The writer and (especially) her publishers are masters at using the anonymity to great effect, and there’s always a suspicion here that Frantumaglia is just another step towards enhancing the Ferrante myth.

From beginning to end, Ferrante constantly asserts her desire to let her books talk for themselves, sending them out into the world to be read and understood without her interpretation.  She wonders:

Is there a way of safeguarding the right of an author to choose to establish, once and for all, through his writing alone, what of himself should become public?
p.61 (Europa Editions, 2016)

The answer is probably no, and the interest (in Italy and overseas) in her true identity shows no signs of abating, with recent events showing the lengths people will go to unmask her.  The pieces here do give clues as to her identity, such as her sisters’ ages, her travel destinations, time spent in Greece and her love of the classics – but that’s still relatively little to go on.

Luckily, then, Ferrante herself gives us a nudge in the right direction by pointing out the importance of certain themes in her fiction, and one of these, the mother-daughter relationship, is mentioned repeatedly.  Her childhood was dominated by her dressmaker mother, with little Elena caught in a relationship in which she both disliked and adored her, angry at her for her going out so much, but mesmerised by her seductive beauty.  When angry with her mother, she used to hide in a small room, half hoping to be looked for and found, and Ferrante later describes the room as the genesis of much of her fiction.  Certainly, this sensual, unavoidable relationship is one she feels she has to explore repeatedly in her work.

Many of the ‘fragments’ here also feature the city of Naples heavily, a city (in the writer’s words) full of the best and worst humans have to offer.  Ferrante attempts to explain the effect the city has had on her writing, especially in regard to the way its women are treated.  While many of her protagonists have left the city, they never really escape its influence, and the veneer of cool professionalism often melts away when they return to their home town:

My women are strong, educated, self-aware and aware of their rights, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings.  I’ve also experienced this oscillation.  I know it well, and that also affects the way I write. (p.251)

It’s this sudden turn from being in control to losing it that marks Ferrante’s protagonists, and in these pieces she candidly admits that much of this is drawn from her own experiences.  These stories gradually lead us to the development of the Neapolitan Novels (which are hinted at even in the early letters, long before the work was underway), with a synthesis of the importance of Naples, the struggles of its women and Ferrante’s attraction to melodrama and (what she calls) ‘low levels of storytelling’.  Later, she is able to reflect on the book’s creation, following the traces back, explaining how all her writing, early novels and unpublished pieces, led to this one extended novel.

Part of the charm of Frantumaglia is following Ferrante’s obvious interest in how her work is received, even while she refuses to colour readers’ perceptions.  An excellent example of this is her reaction to the films of her early novels and her fascination with the screenplays she is sent.  Much as she dreads having her story and characters appropriated, her determination to make the work stand on its own means she’s loath to get between book and reader (or film and watcher):

But there is no correct way to activate the power of a written story, and instructions for use are not worth much.  The “right reading” is an invention of academics and critics.  Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book. (p.190)

For Ferrante, this isn’t about the death, or the absence, of the author (in fact, she rejects this idea of absence on several occasions); it’s merely a desire to have the work sink or swim on its own merits.

For anyone who has read a few of Ferrante’s novels, working your way through Frantumaglia is a fascinating experience.  The many pieces combine to provide valuable insights into her writing, and the discussions of plot and character show the amount of work and thought that went into the novels.  The writer, despite her supposed reticence, is often unable to control herself in responses to interview questions (Exhibit A here is a seventy-page response to some detailed questions from a journalist) – for someone unwilling to let the author overshadow the work, at times, she simply can’t help herself.  Of course, that’s partly due to the personal nature of her writing and the sense that her novels are an expression of her own experiences:

(Liz) Jobey: The Neapolitan novels have similarities of character and plot to your three earlier novels.  Are you, in some way, telling the same story?
Ferrante: Not the same story but definitely the same features of a single malady.  Life’s wounds are incurable and you write them and rewrite them in the hope of being able, sooner or later, to construct a narrative that will account for them once and for all. (p.350)

Perhaps, then, Ferrante is simply working through her experiences using alter-egos, exploring the possibilities and constraints of an educated Neapolitan woman – and then using the reactions of a global audience to gauge how much they reflect the experiences of women elsewhere…

While Frantumaglia does reveal a different side to Ferrante than that shown by the novels, another intriguing aspect to the book is its meta-referential level.  Both Ferrante and her publishers constantly allude in their letters to the book itself, discussing earlier versions and exploring the idea of expanding the collection to account for further developments in Ferrante’s career.  The Frantumaglia we’re reading today is the result of a gradual accretion of these ‘frantumaglia’, the many pieces floating around in the ether wanting to be formed into something less scattered.  Given this fragmented format, with the reader free to form their own ideas of what the book is about (which I’m sure Ferrante would appreciate), there’s every chance that even this hefty tome, running to almost four-hundred pages, is only a further draft of the work, with more to come with time.

So far, I’ve been nothing but complimentary about the book, but I’d have to say that the nature of the book means that some sections are fairly dull.  There’s a fair amount of repetition, particularly in the third and final part containing interviews with journalists from around the world (yes, it’s impressive that interviewers from so many countries are desperate to speak to Ferrante, but there are only a certain number of ways she can say, no, I don’t regret my decision to remain in the background…).  In addition, while respecting her desire for anonymity, I don’t always agree with how she goes about it, and as much as she may deny that it’s good for sales, her publishers are certainly using it as a marketing tool (it’s no secret that it’s #FerranteFever that they push, focusing on the writer, not the books).

However, overall Frantumaglia is an excellent glimpse behind the curtain, and there are several sections where it simply makes for enjoyable reading.  The best parts are when Ferrante cuts loose, longer sections where she forgets that she’s supposed to be answering questions and just writes whatever she feels like discussing at the time.  In many places, the pieces could be fiction (and quite possibly are…) and provide a timely reminder of why she’s so popular – it’s hard not to be swept away by the passionate honesty of her responses, whether they’re authentic or not.  What’s even more intriguing are the frequent mentions of unpublished work, reams of text that the writer never considered worthy of sending to the publishers.  It’s hard to imagine that none of this will ever see the light of day…

That’s plenty for one post, but before I finish, I need to quickly mention the special attention Ferrante pays to her third novel, The Lost Daughter.  In many places, she describes it as an important piece, a personal work and a crucial connection between her early books and the Neapolitan Novels.  All of which means that having read the other novels, it’s time for me to have a look at that one too to see if it really is the key to Ferrante’s fiction – soon, perhaps😉

The Millions

A Year in Reading: 2016

Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante.

We typically schedule the essays and reviews and lists we run at The Millions a week or two in advance. Before the U.S. election, I looked at what we had in the hopper and tried to arrange the posts for timeliness. This was basically a symbolic gesture since The Millions is a total literary miscellany, and mostly contributor-driven — we don’t have the budget to commission much work (see publisher Max Magee’s call for support here). Max and I conferred about what to run on election day itself; we agreed that a lovely, calm installment of Hannah Gersen’s Proust Diary was the thing. I asked him what we should run if Donald Trump won. “SHUT IT ALL DOWN,” he wrote, sort of joking.

It’s obvious now that our disbelief was a luxury — there were plenty of people who knew it could happen. But the shock was real, and so too was the subsequent urge to shut it down. It was unclear, in the days immediately following the election, how a literary site could possibly matter when Donald Trump was the President of the United States, when it felt that all efforts should henceforth be directed at subverting the new regime. (It’s still unclear.)

But then the Year in Reading entries started coming in, from more than 70 writers. This is the 13th year of the series, and it feels like the most necessary yet. The entries have a measure of fear and grief, yes. They are about reckoning with the past, and preparing for the future. They are also full of beauty, full of sensitivity, full of intelligence, full of curiosity and care. They are about dissolving in someone else’s consciousness. About sharing suffering. About taking a break. About falling in love.

Based on the entries this year, I can confirm that readers are still very into Elena Ferrante. But there are many other names to discover in this series — exciting debuts and forgotten classics and authors whose names were on the tip of your tongue. There are hundreds of books: novels, essays, works of nonfiction, and poems.

As in prior years, the names of our 2016 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson). Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come.

There are difficult weeks and years ahead, but we hope you’ll be momentarily refreshed and heartened as you hear from an array of prodigious readers and writers. At the very least, you’ll find something good to read.

A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

 Like so many other people, I devoured Elena Ferrante’s glorious Neapolitan quartet; when I was done, I had a Naples itch, and to scratch it I finally read my ancient copies of John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, and was bowled over by both. (. . .)

A Year in Reading: Kaulie Lewis

Not to be too contrarian, but sometimes I like people to be wrong. Is that terrible? Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, when everyone I knew said, “just try reading Elena Ferrante, she’s amazing, incredible, you’ll love her, you won’t even look up until you’re through, how lucky are you the fourth book is out, you didn’t even have to wait, I wish I was reading them for the first time again,” I decided I didn’t want them to be right.Ferrante? Not my style, I said.
Alas, 2016 was the year I finally read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and got just as swept up as everyone said I would. I made the mistake of beginning My Brilliant Friend on a plane, headed out to visit friends in San Francisco. Rudely but predictably, I spent the rest of the trip curled up on somebody else’s couch, far more engaged with the novels than I was with my real-life companions and hosts. Day outings were almost painful; I practically had to be dragged out of my imaginary Naples to drive out to a vineyard or to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.Dramatics aside, the Neapolitan novels stunned me. Lila, Lenu, the reality and complexity of their world, and the incredibly insightful, moving, and painful female friendship at its heart, were more than enough to knock me over. I’ve rarely been so glad to be so wrong.

A Year in Reading: Bich Minh Nguyen

This year a group of friends and I started a book club because we wanted to talk about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It so happened that we also love karaoke, so we became a karaoke book club: we talk about writing and desire and friendship and then we go and sing our hearts out. This pairing works beautifully and maybe it’s because we want to be in a moment, like Ferrante Fever. I’ve been thinking about how much immersion matters, how I’m reading for what books can make me feel, especially a particular collusion of sadness and rage, sparked by longing. This takes many forms: rawness, interiority, yelling, even silence. It has to do with characters working against histories and structures that often seem impossible to break.

Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila are trying to figure out their own selves, at times creative and wild, within harsh patriarchal and provincial structures.


Public Books



December 15, 2016 — Reading Frantumaglia, the new collection of letters, interviews, and occasional prose from Elena Ferrante, I was struck by how often the author opened her correspondence with an apology. “I apologize again for the trouble I cause you,” she writes to her publisher Sandra Ozzola of her unwillingness to appear in person to accept a prestigious literary prize. “I’m sincerely afraid that I don’t know how to contribute to your project … I apologize in advance,” she writes to Mario Martone, the director who wants to adapt her novella Troubling Love into a film, before providing him with 15 pages of brilliant, exacting notes on the script he has sent her. “I apologize in advance for the confusing or contradictory passages you may encounter,” she writes to critic and magazine editor Goffredo Fofi in a letter she ultimately decides not to send. The refrain clangs across all three hundred pages of the book: “I apologize.” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry,” “I am sorry.”

An apology is not a neutral act, especially not an apology that is issued publicly, as Ferrante’s apologies now are. An apology performs an act of deference, yet it need not be sincere. Often, in fact, it isn’t. “I am sorry” can serve as a strategic front, allowing the speaker to present a remorseful or self-vilifying attitude while continuing to think or do whatever she pleases. For Ferrante, apologizing is a tactic for preserving her innocence, a self-protective stance she has assumed since childhood, albeit with certain reservations. “Innocence—I began to convince myself—is never to get into the situation of arousing malicious reactions in others,” she writes. “Difficult but possible. So I taught myself to be silent, I apologized for everything, I reined in my tongue, I was polite and compliant. Yet secretly I was bad.”

Delivered in hindsight, the implicit message here is that preserving one’s innocence through unfelt apologies is a childish strategy, both politically ineffectual and self-deceptive. But Frantumaglia suggests otherwise. Whatever else it may be—a glimpse into the drawers of her writing desk, her publisher’s attempt to stoke or satisfy the curiosity of her readers—it is a book that, apology by apology, builds the case for Ferrante’s writerly innocence: not just her modest withdrawal from the “media circus and its demands,” but her complete exemption from the material and ideological operations of the literary field. “I consider the text a self-sufficient body, which has in itself, in its makeup, all the questions and all the answers. And then real books are written only to be read,” Ferrante writes. Frantumaglia is full of such statements of shallow profundity. Reading “once … was a purely private fact.” “Every reader gets from the book he is reading nothing else but his book.” We all “read books by no one.”

It is not clear to me that this case needed to be made. If Claudio Gatti’s claims about the Ferrante pseudonym revealed anything, it was not her true identity—that has been neither confirmed nor denied, and thus remains unresolved—but the degree to which critics, with nothing short of reverence, had already accepted her insistence on literature’s purity. She had a knack for turning self-proclaimed Marxists and feminists hopelessly middlebrow; for seducing even our most advanced critics into forgetting what they very well knew: that novels do not spring fully formed from the minds of geniuses; that the use of a pseudonym does not subvert a literary marketplace in which books are bought and sold with authors’ names emblazoned on their covers, their spines, on the top of every other page. These were children’s dreams, which perhaps explains why the anger of her defenders so often resembled the anger of children who, peering over the railing on Christmas Eve, were shocked to discover that there was no Santa Claus, only a tired mother pressing her scissors to the ribbons that wrapped their presents.

How did Ferrante manage to undo so many without arousing any malicious reactions? How did she remake the sensibilities of readers trained to sniff out politically suspect ideologies? Frantumaglia is, above all, an astonishing tutorial in unlearning how to read: how to abandon the language of critique that many have cultivated through formal schooling, in the hopes that such abandonment might bring us closer to the state of innocence that Ferrante has claimed for herself and her work. She draws inspiration from Walter Benjamin, who, in the beginning of Berlin Childhood around 1900, writes about learning to get lost in the city of his childhood, its roads and rivers furrowed into his memory. “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling,” Benjamin writes.1 The same holds true for reading, insofar as unlearning how to read also requires some schooling, or rather, some unschooling. “The ‘right reading’ is an invention of academics and critics,” Ferrante claims. “The books we’ve truly read are phantoms conjured up by reading with no rules.”

<i>Naples, 2007</i>. Photograph by David Evers / Flickr

Naples, 2007. Photograph by David Evers / Flickr

For Ferrante, the best kind of reading is childish, untaught, enchanting. It summons up our “strong, slightly vulgar passions” and unearths a “fund of pleasure” that too many have “repressed in the name of Literature”—the cultural category produced by a disenchanted adulthood of criticism and theory. But a “real book,” a book we have “truly read,” is utterly absorbing, a wormhole to some pre-ideological moment before academic theorists, punishing and cold, unmasked reading and writing for what it was: a densely mediated activity, a marker of class privilege, a field of production in which many kinds of exclusions—by race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality—are erased under the blinding and numinous sign of Art. It is tempting to throw off the burden of political and historical consciousness in the face of enchantment. The magician waves his wand, taps his hat, and we realize, almost as an afterthought, that we do not want to know where the rabbit was hiding.

It is also tempting to believe that writing is “not a job”—another refrain of Ferrante’s throughout Frantumaglia; tempting to believe that a real book is simply an imprint of the author’s consciousness. It is an incantation that guards against the social, economic, or political circumstances of authorial production. This is the fantastical meaning behind frantumaglia, a word that Ferrante says she borrows from her mother’s Neapolitan dialect. Frantumaglia literally means “a jumble of fragments,” but the word wields a fabulous and disorienting performative power. Speaking it makes her mother dizzy. It sets her singing under her breath and drives her out of the house, the stove still on, the sauce burning. It makes her weep. “It’s the right word for what I’m convinced I saw as a child—or, anyway, during that time invented by adults that we call childhood—shortly before language entered me and instilled speech: a bright-colored explosion of sounds, thousands and thousands of butterflies with sonorous wings,” Ferrante writes. What we are offered in Frantumaglia, then, is something that predates not just literature, but language; a return to a state of pure sensory impression that could be called “childhood,” were “childhood” not already a compromised notion.

To return us to our childhoods, Ferrante speaks like a child. Her genre of choice is the domestic epic, her heroine the weaving woman: Ariadne, Dido, but above all others, Ferrante’s mother, described as a dressmaker in Naples, whose work Ferrante discusses at length in an interview titled “La Frantumaglia.” It unfolds from the perspective of Ferrante as a child, standing beside her mother at a fabric store, her head just clearing her mother’s waist. She waits and watches as her mother chooses the perfect fabric with which to “weave her spell.” Her mother’s dressmaking was “a spell I was deeply familiar with,” Ferrante writes, “but it enchanted me anyway, always.” Recreating this enchantment for her readers requires a subtle act of narrative erasure (like that of My Brilliant Friend, and unlike Proust, to whom she is so often compared): a refusal to impose any reflexive distance between the perspective of the adult who tells the story and the child she once was. It is as if the adult, and her artful shaping of a memory, never existed.

Except, of course, the adult narrator does exist and the spell her mother casts is nothing if not artfully described:


It was the sewing that cast a spell, much more than cutting. The mobile skill of that hand put together the pieces of material, made the seams invisible, the pieces of fabric regained a soft continuity, a new compactness, became a dress, the shape of a female body, skin clinging to skin, an organism that lay in her lap and sometimes slid down to her feet, which were in motion like her hands, ready to go to the pedal of the sewing machine. It was a back and forth that seemed like a dance to me, the hand moved the needle, the mouth bit the thread, the chest often rotated on the chair, turned to the machine to sew, the feet, wide, with a powerful structure, rested on the pedal and started the movement of the machine’s needle …


That her description is an allegory for writing fiction is obvious; Ferrante tells us as much when she reveals that the Neapolitan phrase “to cut the cloth on” is slang for telling stories, and that the women who come to try on her mother’s dresses speak of love, betrayal, heartbreak, and revenge with such passion that the fabric trembles under the force of their words. Yet it is also an allegory for the act of anonymous creation; an allegory expertly threaded through the movements of the sentences. It is the “mobile skill of the hand”—not the hand itself, not the woman to whom the hand belongs—that performs all the work and erases all traces of the work’s artfulness. And it is the dress that escapes the agile hand of its maker, taking on a life of its own as a separate “organism,” a compact and continuous shape. All the while its maker remains in fragments: a hand, a mouth, a chest, two wide and powerful feet. The woman to whom they all belong remains veiled by the beauty of the fabrics she has woven together.

<i>Mannequins</i>. Photograph by Karyn Christner / Flickr

Mannequins. Photograph by Karyn Christner / Flickr

The problem with allegory is that it can get heavy-handed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ferrante’s children’s book, The Beach at Night, which I have read aloud two or three times to my son before putting him to bed in the evenings. It tells the story of a pale, dark-haired, self-pitying doll who is abandoned on the shore at sunset and discovered at night by a Mean Beach Attendant, a man with a dark mustache and coarse hands. From between his lips he pulls out a thin golden hook, forces it down the doll’s throat, and rips from her a secret that she has guarded with great care: her name. My son did not appreciate the startlingly allegorical nature of the scene—to be fair, he’s only nine months old—and I found it cheap, gimmicky.

What The Beach at Night reveals is how impossible it is to ignore the biographical in reading Ferrante when so much of her prose turns on her allegories of anonymity, whether in the form of a dress made by no one or a doll who will not speak her name. It is precisely her refusal of the biographical, and her subsequent representation of that refusal, that has lodged the biographical ever deeper into the heart of what she writes. This is a paradox—or parlor trick, depending on one’s perspective—that critics have universally failed to perceive, resulting in a basic misunderstanding of what kinds of claims the biographical allows one to make. For instance, it makes no logical sense to argue, as Alexander Chee does in his review of Frantumaglia, that there is no value in knowing Ferrante’s identity, while also asserting that, if Ferrante is translator Anita Raja, whose ancestors are Polish and Jewish and not among the Neapolitan poor, then Frantumaglia is “a metafiction, her most experimental text yet, a massive prank on criticism and the media.”2Incoherent claims like this have proliferated in Gatti’s wake.

Why were we so invested in Ferrante’s anonymity anyway? After all, we never had it, even when we thought we did; we were always reading biographically, because that’s simply how we read novels when author’s names are appended to them. Setting aside the egregious ethical violations in outing her, the important question for literary criticism is not why would anyone want to know who she is, but why not know? What harm does it to do us? Is her literature so fragile that it can be injured by knowing a name? I would like to believe that the answer is no.

Los Angeles Times

The 10 most important books of 2016

For those who like fiction, the idea of crafting a character who is the stand-in for the novelist is more interesting than poking into a publisher’s financial records. “Frantumaglia” is the real accomplishment.

The 10 most important books of 2016

By Carolyn Kellogg

Books are slow food. It generally takes two years, two hardworking years, to cook up a book from idea to publication. Some writers can go faster — those who publish a book a year (or more) are working at top speed — while others write much more slowly, ruminating and reworking and false-starting for a decade or more. By the time we readers get them, books are self-contained objects, narratives that have evolved outside of the relentless news cycle and Twitter chatter. More than any other medium, books give us deep, rich stories that stand apart from the hubbub.

Except sometimes, that years-long process winds up being right in the center of the conversation. Which brings us to these, the 10 most important books of 2016. No matter when they started or how long they took, they touched on something that was essential this year, and will be essential when we look back at it from 2017 and beyond.

“Frantumaglia” by Elena Ferrante

Ferrante, the Italian author of the internationally bestselling Neapolitan novels, is a phantom, a pseudonym. “Frantumaglia” is an autobiographical assemblage of writings, sharing some of her history (possibly fabricated) and explaining that she wants to remain unknown because of the burdens put on female writers. Weeks before the book’s American release, a European journalist claimed to have discovered Ferrante’s true identity, raising questions of who needs to know what about whom. For those who like fiction, the idea of crafting a character who is the stand-in for the novelist is more interesting than poking into a publisher’s financial records. “Frantumaglia” is the real accomplishment.


The Best Things We Read in 2016 That You Still Can Too

I don’t know about you, but the only time I ever get a consistent amount of reading done is during vacation, when I haven’t spent the entire day scanning webpage after webpage.

As such, here’s some highlights from the year in words that was 2016 that you can enjoy during your holiday downtime, or pass on to others who also need something to distract themselves while watching chestnuts roast—I hear that’s called “gifting”?

The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante: You’re probably shocked to see a white feminist writer recommending an author as obscure and unheard of as Ferrante on highly trafficked woman’s site, but here I am, a goddamn unicorn. After years of knowing that I SHOULD read Ferrante, I finally DID read Ferrante and guess what? The Neapolitan Novels are very good? I feel like we’re on the crest of a Ferrante backlash, so I want to get this in before it fully arrives: She truly does capture the complexity of female friendships and quiet violence of being female better than almost any writer I’ve read before. (I’ve followed the Neapolitan Novels up with Clover’s recommendation, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and they complement each other very nicely.)

World Literature Today

World Literature Today’s 75 Notable Translations of 2016

75 Notable Translations of 2016

In our fifth annual list of “75 Notable Translations,” we again offer an admittedly incomplete collection of the year’s English translations. And again, we invite you to share your favorites from the year as well as those you’re most eagerly anticipating in 2017 by using the hashtag #2017Reads on Twitter and Facebook.

Two notable firsts: Boubacar Boris Diop’s Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks became the first novel translated from Wolof to English and Phoneme Media published the first English translation of a Burundian novel, Rugero Roland’s Baho!, translated by Chris Schaefer. And a new nonprofit, independent press that will include translated literature among its publications entered the scene. Transit Books will release four titles in 2017.

The conversation about women in translation continued. In September, Alison Anderson and David Shook participated in an interview on WLT’s Translation Tuesday blog series, discussing with Melissa Weiss the status of women authors in translation. In November, WLT published an issue devoted exclusively to women writers, cover to cover, including pieces in translation from Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Macedonian, Norwegian, and Spanish. So if you’re looking for great translations by women writers, perhaps to join Biblio’s #Women in Translation Month, WLT’s November issue and the list below are two great starting points.

We look forward to continuing to serve as your passport to great global reading in 2017.

Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)

The Australian

Holiday reading: from Coetzee to Keneally, Winton and Ferrante

Summer is the perfect time to catch up on the books you’ve missed.

The challenge at this time of year is, well, entertaining the in-laws (or the spouses, to be fair to in-laws). In this week’s Ragged Claws column, I mention Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History. But let’s not go there unless we need to. First there is an even greater challenge, one I face each December: choosing books for this summer reading/Christmas gift guide.

It’s something I like doing but I do fret about forgetting books that should be remembered. As you read this, I’m at home waiting for an email that blasts “How could you leave out X?!” I also want to cover books that will appeal to different readers, not just myself. It can’t all be about horseracing, I understand.

So, as usual, the following is based on books I’ve read, reviews of ones I haven’t, prizes and sales, talking to friends and checking “books of the year” lists here and there. I’ve also peeked at our own best books wrap-up, the picks of local writers and critics, which we will run next week.

I want to start, however, with my two books of the year, a decision I found easier than usual. Both are international. My favourite novel was Imagine Me Gone by American writer Adam Haslett. It’s a beautiful, moving exploration of a fractured family shadowed by the father’s suicide. My favourite nonfiction book — and indeed my book of the year — was one Peter Carey brought to my attention: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, by London-based Libyan novelist Hisham Matar. It’s a complex, aching memoir of his decision to return home to try to learn, 20 years after the event, what happened to his father, who was an opponent of Muammar Gaddafi.


There was a row two months ago when an Italian journalist published a piece revealing the “real” name of bestelling Neapolitan author Elena Ferrante. Well, whatever her name is, most of us think of her as Elena Ferrante, and I think will do so even more if we read Frantumaglia, a collection of her correspondence with publishers, readers and journalists. It’s an absorbing explanation of why this writer insists on anonymity, and also reveals a lot about the inspiration for and thinking behind her remarkable novels. Even more authors go about thinking in The Writers Room, in which novelist Charlotte Wood collects the interviews she has conducted with fellow authors. In Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, edited by Maggie Fergusson, there are museum and gallery tributes by authors such as Julian Barnes, Aminatta Forna, Margaret Drabble and Tim Winton. Literary Wonderlands, edited by Laura Miller, is a “journey through the greatest fictional worlds ever created”. Beautifully illustrated, it’s a critical consideration of works from The Odyssey and The Tempest to the works of authors such as Mark Twain, Franz Kafka, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood. David Foster Wallace, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie. George Orwell is in Literary Wonderlands but the book I want to read about him is John ­Sutherland’s Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological ­Biography. Sutherland had the idea for this book after he lost his own sense of smell, permanently. Rereading Orwell, he was struck by his focus on smells. He started thinking of the “scent narratives” in Orwell’s books. Considering a passage in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston Smith, in a flat, smells the “sharp reek of sweat” of “some person not present at the moment”, Sutherland writes: “You need a nose a bloodhound would envy to track the perspiratory reek of someone who has been out of the house for hours.”

The New York Times

‘Ferrante Fever’ Continues to Spread

The Spectator

Rifling through Elena Ferrante’s writing desk

As a sop to the media, the reclusive author gives us Frantumaglia — a deafening Neapolitan jumble of stories, letters and stories within letters, guaranteed to keep us quiet

(Photo: Getty)

Frantumaglia isn’t strictly a book by Elena Ferrante. Frantumaglia isn’t strictly a book at all. It’s a celebration of the life of the novel and a manifesto for the death of the author, told in a collection of interviews, letters from journalists requesting interviews, letters within letters, stories within letters, and letters from Ferrante’s editor in which the idea of publishing all these letters, dating from 1991 to the present day, is initially proposed.

The whole caboodle is a dizzying ‘jumble of fragments’, ‘a miscellaneous crowd of things’, a mass of ‘contradictory sensations’ which ‘make a noise in your head’. Which is how Ferrante defines ‘frantumaglia’, a word lifted from Neopolitan dialect which will now, doubtless, find its place in the OED. Frantumaglia is what wakes you in the night; frantumaglia, says Ferrante, is the source of all suffering. It is also, she stresses, the origin of writing. It is from the chaos of frantumaglia that stories are born: ‘The stories that you tell, the words that you use and refine, the characters you try to give life to are merely tools with which you circle around the elusive, unnamed, shapeless thing that belongs to you alone.’

Everything in these pages is calculated to make a noise in your head. The layout, for example, is exasperating. We are given Ferrante’s replies to letters before being shown the letter to which she is replying; her detailed responses to interviewers’ questions are given before we are shown the questions themselves. One particularly brilliant letter, to a journalist called
Francesco Erbani, was, we are told only after we’ve read it, never sent.

Ferrante’s editor, Sandra Ozzola, describes the book as a story whose subject is ‘the 25-year history of an attempt to show that the function of the author is all in the writing’. It’s a story that admirers of the Neopolitan Quartet know already: Ferrante’s refusal to join in the media circus has created a media circus; her insistence on privacy has been treated as a crime.

This book is offered as a concession to Ferrante devotees, with the blurb inviting us into her ‘workshop’, where we are free to rifle the ‘drawers of her writing desk’. Which is of course exactly what the investigative journalist, Claudio Gatti, did recently, when he used Ferrante’s bank statements to uncover her real name. His justification was, he said, the ‘lies’ in Frantumaglia, which boil down to Ferrante’s description of her mother as a dressmaker when she apparently had some other job. Elena Ferrante’s nom-de-plume is at the heart of her art, and Gatti’s lumpen literalism, for which he expected a standing ovation, has made him an international pariah. So it is both strange and moving now to read, in the light of her unmasking, Ferrante’s devastating plea for invisibility.

Having perused her mail, I wonder how she has stayed sane. Fighting off the media is Ferrante’s life’s work. In letter after letter she explains, in a thousand different ways and with endless eloquence, why she restricts herself to a small number of email interviews. ‘My entire identity is the books that I write’; ‘I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors’; ‘I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.’ She writes in order to ‘free’ herself from her stories, not to become their ‘prisoner’.Frantumaglia could, without losing volume, be reduced to a series of aphorisms on the subject of authorship.

Meanwhile, the interviews Ferrante is gracious enough to grant focus exclusively on her desire to absent herself from the fanfare of book promotion. Asked the same question again and again, she replies with her usual clarity: ‘Is a book, from the media point of view, above all the name of the person who writes it?’ She has chosen ‘absence’, she repeats, and not ‘anonymity’; her books are not anonymous because there is a name on the cover. Giving yourself to a book, she says, is fantastically exposing — ‘it’s as if you had been rudely searched’ — and so the reader has already seen all of her.

Frantumaglia tells us a great deal about the business of being a writer in a philistine, celebrity-obsessed culture, but this is not where the force of the book lies. Ferrante also reveals something about readers which we are refusing to hear. It’s what Keats explained in a letter to his friend, Richard Woodhouse— the poet can be found in his poems and not in his person.


Brunch in NYC solo with the company of these books

It happened again: Your squad slept through brunch. Or worse, you couldn’t get a table for the crew but somehow squeezed yourself into a lonely bar seat to wallow in eggs Benedict alone. It’s all good, because you brought the company of some great nonfiction that’s much more entertaining than any mimosa-fueled conversation at this way too loud trendy brunch spot. Here’s what you’ll want to read while brunching solo.

‘Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey’ by Elena Ferrante

This new nonfiction account by the author known as Ferrante lets you get intimate with the person behind the pseudonym — you’ll forget you weren’t actually brunching with Ferrante herself. Decades of letters, personal writing, interviews and more are collected in this new look into Ferrante’s mysterious life and writing process.

The Muse – Jezebel

In Frantumaglia, Elena Ferrante Is Her Own Greatest Work of Fiction 

Early in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, Elena Ferrante acknowledges that she is going to lie. Even though Frantumaglia, a collection of letters, interviews, and other ephemera, is ostensibly non-fiction, it’s a label that seems too flexible, if not entirely meaningless. Ferrante is an unreliable narrator herself but she wouldn’t be the first woman, fictional or otherwise, who was purposefully untrustworthy.

The book’s title, Ferrante writes, is a word borrowed from her mother, a woman Ferrante describes as a talented dressmaker in Naples who spoke in dialect. “[My mother] said she that inside her she had a frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia depressed her,” she writes. In her mother’s hands, frantumaglia is both the haunting of history, of fragments of the self that continuously rattle, as well as the source of sadness. In some respect, it is a tabula rasa for womanhood. For Ferrante, the concept of frantumaglia is even more volatile:

The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self. The frantumaglia is the store house of time without the orderliness of history, a story.

The passage could be a manifesto for her novels: the search for the authentic self beneath the rubble of history and womanhood; the subsequent, catastrophic realization that the self is “fated to vanish” into the spectacle of the crowd. It’s a sophisticated passage, steeped in post-modern theories that Ferrante draws from with an elegant ease. And, because it’s Ferrante, the passage is beautifully executed, both evocative and vivid. In short, it’s a perfect Ferrante passage—everything a dedicated reader could possibly want from the writer of the Neapolitan Quartet is here.

And yet, Ferrante’s mother—the woman described in interviews and reproduced here in a loving passage about dressmaking and clothing—is fiction. We know now, after an investigation by the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti, that Elena Ferrante is likely Anita Raja, a translator whose mother fled Germany during the Holocaust. Raja’s mother was not a dressmaker, nor did she speak in Neapolitan dialect. How much of the passage is true—how much of Raja’s own biography is accurately presented throughout Frantumaglia—is unclear.

In these fragments, it’s impossible to tell where the fiction Ferrante ends and the real Raja begins. I’m not certain that the delineation matters. It doesn’t seem to matter who Ferrante actually is; it’s enough to know that she’s beautiful fiction. “The word is always flesh,” Ferrante writes to an interviewer, a winking notation that collapses the space between the women who populate her novels and the author herself.

Ferrante was always present in her novels, as she is here, in narrative fragments, in small pieces. It’s a point she returns to again and again in the interview transcripts included in Frantumaglia. In nearly every interview Ferrante is asked about her identity and subsequently asked how much of her books are autobiographical. In nearly every interview, Ferrante responds by saying that her novels are fiction and she draws from only her personal knowledge of human emotions, particularly their gendered expression. It was an answer that didn’t seem to assuage critics who either simply couldn’t believe that Lenu and Lila were pure creations or who simply wanted more and more of Ferrante’s story.

And yet Ferrante resisted those questions, dismissed them as part of an increasing spectacle that treats authorship as an end goal, rather than the novel itself. “The biographical path does not lead to the genius of a work; it’s only a micro-story on the side,” Ferrante writes. It’s perhaps why the hunt for her identity felt wrong. What would knowing about Anita Raja tell us about Elena Ferrante? Perhaps it could be a confirmation that Ferrante, long rumored to be a man or multiple people, wasn’t all that creative. Ferrante balks at both suggestions, she doesn’t believe that the author is “inessential” just inconsequential to good writing.

Perhaps also, as Ferrante suggests, the clamor for the celebrity author would finally be met, newspapers would be sold, traffic goals would be met, and culture writers could have more than just a good book, they could have a star. But when Ferrante was identified as Raja, readers resisted the identification. Such mundane knowledge seemed designed to ruin the magic of Ferrante, reduce her authoritative representation of gender to its dull realities. The person created by Ferrante—that new autobiography that quite clearly engaged in the magic of her novels—satisfies the reader’s craving of her otherworldliness. In Frantumaglia, you won’t find Ferrante as a real person who, like everyone, is a succession of boring details, of chores and schedules and financial obligations. Ferrante may grapple with the significance of relationships between mothers and daughters, or female friends, she isn’t interested in their minutiae, she is interested in piecing together the fragments.

So here is Ferrante in written fragments: she cranky and difficult, in her own words, she’s “neurotic.” She’s anxious and protective; warm and kind; a woman is who simultaneously politically engaged and an aesthete. She is also an intellectual, she freely cites Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud, and the classics. She weaves them into letters personally and effortlessly and is grounded in the literature of university humanities departments. But her intellect isn’t cold, her application of theory isn’t done objectively—the women that populate her novels are not merely flat, fictional objects to Ferrante, rather they’re real and visceral (“the word is always flesh”).

In various letters, Ferrante writes about her characters as if they are flesh and blood women; she has real concerns about how the choices that she makes affect them (there are a number of deleted passages in the book, particularly from Days of Abandonment). The letters, taken together, make plain that Ferrante also knows the contours of these women, the shape of the feelings and their limitations. Olga, Lenu, and Lila seem as real in Frantumaglia as they do in their novels, largely because they are real to Ferrante.

Rendering real women, with their fraught relationships and anger, joy, anxieties, disappointment and sadness, has always been where Ferrante is at her most authentic; where she is her most truthful. But in Frantmuaglia, her first work of non-fiction, the reader finds one of Ferrante’s most convincing works of fiction: Elena Ferrante.